Senate Passes Contentious National Defense Authorization Act



Last night the Senate voted to invoke cloture the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 – a major piece of legislation that sets policy for the Defense Department by authorizing programs and suggesting funding levels (not to be confused with the Defense Appropriations Bill, the NDAA does not actually fund the military). But NDAA reauthorization affects issues far beyond national defense. Last week, my colleague Mikey posted an update about the NDAA’s response to the Palestinian’s recent UN bid. Later this week my colleague Sarah will discuss a landmark gain for military women’s rights. Today, though, I’m writing a quick update on the controversial civil liberties issues in this bill.

As I wrote last week, the version of the NDAA passed by the House of Representatives last summer included an extension of a ban on transferring detainees in Guantanamo to the United States. While these restrictions were not initially included in the Senate version of the bill, they were added in an amendment offered by Senator Ayotte (R-NH) and accepted late Thursday night in a 54-41 vote. These restrictions would prevent the closure of the U.S. Prison in Guantanamo Bay for the next year, and make its eventual closure all the more unlikely.

A broad group of civil liberties, human rights and religious organizations have called on Congress to take this language out of the bill and called on the President not to sign a bill that would prevent his closing of Guantanamo. On Thursday the President issued a Statement of Administrative Policy opposing these portions of the bill and threatening to veto it.

It’s not too late to add your voice to the call against blocking the closure of Guantanamo.

The second major controversial issue in this year’s NDAA concerns indefinite detention. Last year’s NDAA radically expanded the government’s authority to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens and people within the United States suspected of terrorism. This year Senator Feinstein (D-CA) attempted to curtail this authority with an amendment offered last Thursday night and accepted in a 67-29 vote.

However the Feinstein Amendment only protects U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents from indefinite detention; it would still allow for the detention of undocumented immigrants, foreign students, tourists and businessmen.  The Reform Movement believes that indefinite detention is a violation of a person’s fundamental human rights and the dignity that comes from being made b’tselem elohim. That dignity, according to our 2003 Resolution on Civil Liberties and National Security, is not contingent on one’s immigration status. So, while we welcome Senator Feinstein’s amendment as a step in the direction toward abolishing indefinite detention, we do not believe it goes far enough and have urged her and her colleagues to expand its protections to all people apprehended within the United States.

Furthermore the Feinstein Amend\ment says that the United States may indefinitely detain U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents if given specific permission by an act of Congress. Late Thursday night a trio of senators all of whom champion the Pentagon in their legislative agenda – Senator Graham (R-SC), Senator Levin (D-MI) and Senator McCain (R-AZ) – all voted for Feinstein’s amendment while stating that the Authorization of Military Force against al Qaeda was such an act of congress, and thus this bill would not change current U.S. policy.

Despite the Senate’s passage of the bill last night there is still another step before the NDAA becomes law. Because the Senate and the House passed different version of the NDAA (most notably, the House bill contains no new limits on Indefinite Detention), the bill has to be conferenced between the two houses and passed again in its final form by both. It is too early to know what that final bill will look like, and not too late to play a role in shaping it.

 

Image Courtesy of Hiroma Yasui/The New York Times

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About Benny Witkovsky

Benny Witkovsky is an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant, he is from Madison, WI, and recently graduated from Vassar College.

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